Healthcare News & Insights

Human trafficking: Identifying victims who visit hospitals

You may have noticed a recent uptick in discussions surrounding human trafficking, and health care is one of the many areas affected. As human trafficking continues to grow, it’s more essential than ever for your staff to recognize the signs patients are being trafficked and know what steps to take next. 

A new report from The Joint Commission offers advice for healthcare workers, including how to identify victims of human trafficking and when to contact law enforcement.

Since human trafficking is the world’s fastest growing criminal industry, training workers on common signs of victimization and procedures to follow should be a priority at your organization.

Trafficking signs

The Quick Safety advisory says potential victims often exhibit poor mental health or abnormal behavior, such as avoiding eye contact or refusing to cooperate with a physical exam, and poor physical health, like malnourishment or signs of physical or sexual abuse.

Victims may also:

  • not be in control of their identification
  • not be allowed to speak for themselves (with a third party insisting on being present or interpreting)
  • be unable to clarify their address
  • be unsure of what city they’re in
  • lose their sense of time
  • have significant inconsistencies in their stories, and
  • have tattoos or brandings.

Suspicious behavior

If staff members suspect human trafficking, they should:

  1. Remain nonjudgmental.
  2. Watch the patient’s body language and communication style, as well as how the patient interacts with his or her companions.
  3. Use plain language, and find an interpreter if necessary.
  4. Make an attempt to interview or examine the patient in private, and ensure the patient is alone when you’re discussing sensitive issues. If you’re able to talk to the patient alone, ask certain screening questions (which can be found in the Joint Commission’s advisory).
  5. Document concerns in the patient’s record so if he or she returns for follow up care, other providers will be aware of the problem.

Next steps

If a patient confesses to being trafficked, there are a few steps staff can consider taking. When there’s an immediate life-threatening risk, encourage the patient to contact law enforcement.

Often, adult victims aren’t ready to admit what’s happening to them. If they’re over 18, no one can force them to call law enforcement. Besides providing medical care, the most important thing is to offer an understanding and respectful shoulder to lean on.

But remember: For minors, staff members are required to follow mandatory reporting guidelines.

Other steps include providing the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline number (1-888-373-7888), discussing a safety plan when going through the discharge process and using a social worker if possible.

Many of your employees may be unaware of the details of caring for patients involved in human trafficking, which is why regular training and refreshers are particularly helpful.

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